Dead Horses and Memento Mori


Have you seen any good shows lately? In the last few years, there’s one that stands out to me as being exceedingly creative and surprisingly addictive - A Series of Unfortunate Events

Maybe you’ve read the books or seen the movie, but if you don’t know what this story is about, the title says it all. The narrator, Lemony Snicket, follows the life of three orphans who are being hunted by Count Olaf, an evil man who is after their family fortune and won’t stop until he get his hands on it. The kids get moved from home to home, and despite their track record of foiling the Count’s plan, they never get the benefit of the doubt.

In one episode, which was memorable for me, the orphans get sent to live and study at Prufrock Prepatory School. This isn’t the kind of school you’d want to send your kids to. Forget fun, kid friendly environments or learning for that matter. This is a dark place.

For their mascot, Prufrock didn’t choose a tiger, a bear, or even a Trojan soldier; but instead chose a dead horse to represent their school. I guess it’s kind of clever because you can’t beat a dead horse, but it doesn’t make for very lively pep rallies. The slogan for the school is Memento Mori.

Memento Mori is a latin term which means “remember you will die.” It was commonly used in the middle ages during times of mass plague to remind people that death was just around the corner. This theme was depicted in a lot of the art of that era, which makes for a pretty morbid section of any art museum.

Prufrock, their mascot, and their slogan all add to the uncomfortable feeling of the school, which clearly ends up being another unfortunate event in the lives of the orphans. But the phrase Memento Mori has stuck with me since. 

“Remember you will die” is a stark reminder, an unwelcome sentiment, and in some cases, an offensive realization. We don’t like to talk about death, let alone come to terms with it, even though we all know that we will face it one day. We would rather ignore it, deny it, and use happy language to try to control it. But surprisingly enough, Memento Mori is actually a biblical concept.

In the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, we find that it is God who gives life to all of creation. He simply speaks, and it is; and what God makes is good. To make humanity, God takes dust form the earth and breaths life into it, and here we are. It’s a profound mystery how this all holds together, but the Christian worldview is that it is God who gives us the breath of life.

But humanity, in their attempt to be like God, discovered that rebellion and sin lead to death. And as that breath of life is taken away from us, we slowly turn back into the dust that we came from. God spoke to Adam after he and Eve at from the forbidden tree:

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return.” - Genesis 3:19

As much as humanity has tried to avoid or cheat death, we are dust and to dust we will return. Memento Mori, as offensive as it might be, is nothing short of stating it like it is. It’s a simply fact. No matter what kind of life you have lived, no matter what your job was, how much money you have, or how big your family is, you will die. 

Why is this important? Because the knowledge and reminder of our mortality leads us to focus on the life we have now. That’s the point of Memento Mori. We do not remember in order to be afraid or feel sad. We remember in order to prioritize our lives and focus on those things that matter most. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you live today? Well, you will die, although we don’t know when, so live your life to the fullest now.

And this is where we come to a crossroads and need to decide which path we want to take. 

What does it mean for us to live to the fullest knowing that we will die? Well, believe it or now, our millennials caught on to something when they started using the term YOLO. If you’ve never heard or seen that before, it stands for You Only Live Once. It’s a term that people use when they want to do something brave or adventurous. Usually it’s associated with going sky diving, or taking that Europe vacation you always dreamed of, or shoving yet another Krispy Kreme into your mouth. Life is short, so live it up!

The interesting thing is that Scripture offers us a different way to live life to the fullest with the knowledge of Memento Mori. It’s not a life focus that looks inward to how we can please ourselves, but one that looks outward to what Jesus tells us is really important. Here is one example:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:19-21

Yes, we only live once, and we will die, but the answer of Scripture is to focus on things that last, to work for the kingdom of God and for each other. The material will fade away, but the things of God’s kingdom will last forever. It’s those things that we are invited to focus our lives on. God’s kingdom is one of justice, peace, righteousness, reconciliation, faith, hope, and love.

It’s exactly for this purpose that we celebrated Ash Wednesday this past week. It’s in this service, which marks the beginning of Lent, that we’re reminded of our mortality so that we can live fully in Christ today. The season of Lent invites us to empty ourselves, to give up things that are fleeting and hold us back from our faith and commitment to Christ. It’s a time of rest, reflection, confession, re-commitment, and restoration.

This Lent, I invite you to reflect on your mortality. Remember that you will die. YOLO. May that knowledge lead you to a renewed understanding of life. May you risk that which you feel God calling you to. May you be brave for the sake of the Kingdom of God, trusting that in the end, when you breath your last, those are the things that will matter most.